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Artificial Lover

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When he first met Kyungsoo, they were dumb, overexcited teens with a lust for life and all things different. Kyungsoo had his quirks and so did Chanyeol; it was easy to fall in love with him. And they began to grow together, year following year until he was dependent on Kyungsoo in every way: emotionally, physically, domestically.

The novelty fades. Life sucks life out of everything until it’s all blank. Chanyeol remembers when they used to go on weekly dates and surprise each other with gifts and kisses. None of that happens anymore. He remembers when they first moved in together, remembers when they started wearing promise rings. Now, being in the apartment with Kyungsoo makes him uneasy, and Kyungsoo stopped wearing his ring months ago.

They sleep in separate beds. Or, Chanyeol sleeps in the bed—Kyungsoo takes the couch most nights. Somewhere between work and every change that comes with time, they stopped feeling like lovers and started feeling like roommates.

Right now, Chanyeol is staring into his coffee cup, chords and melodies cycling through his mind. Producing is how he makes money, and it’s hard when his boss considers all his work ‘uninspired.’ Across the room, Kyungsoo sits in his usual chair, dark eyes skimming over a book. Every swish of a turned page makes Chanyeol feel less sane. The apartment is so silent that even the softest noise is too much. The hum of the refrigerator, the buzzing overhead light, Kyungsoo’s paper-on-paper—all of it interferes with the music in Chanyeol’s brain. “Can you read quieter?”

“What?”

“You’re flipping the pages so loud.”

He can picture Kyungsoo’s exact expression without looking at him: slightly downturned lips, one eyebrow raised— “You’re one to talk; I can hear you thinking from all the way over here.”

When did this become every conversation between them? No love, just picking everything apart. “Sorry,” Chanyeol sighs, “Keep reading.”

But Kyungsoo has already been set off—he stands up like it takes a lot out of him. “No, no. You’re stressed, I get it. I can read in the bedroom.”

That’s the only time Kyungsoo goes into to the bedroom anymore: when he’s either getting dressed, or reading.

And Chanyeol is left alone in the tiny living room, which feels empty without Kyungsoo’s presence. The problem, Chanyeol realized a long time ago, is that he loves Kyungsoo and that’s boring. Their lives are starting to separate, a pull that Chanyeol worries will break every day.

It’s already evening. Still no musical insight; not even the city lights out the window can do anything.

Looks like Chanyeol is the one sleeping on the couch tonight.

 


 

“Morning.”

Chanyeol wakes up to the smell of coffee brewing, the bitter kind Kyungsoo likes to drink. “Morning,” he says. The couch is too small to house Chanyeol’s tall figure, and when he stands up every muscle groans.

He joins Kyungsoo in the kitchen area, which Kyungsoo still refuses to call a proper kitchen. “Sorry if I was crabby last night,” he leans against the counter where Kyungsoo waits for coffee, “You know I don’t mean things like that, babe.”

“I know,” Kyungsoo says, “I just worry about you working too hard. Don’t you have a big project coming up? What if you can’t produce something your asshole boss approves of?”

That’s all Chanyeol has thought about for weeks. His recent performance at the studio already has him hanging by a thread; one more tanked project could cost him a job. There are computer programs that could do his work for much cheaper, and the only thing keeping his position locked is that certain artists insist on a live producer. “Don’t worry,” Chanyeol smiles, even though he’s more worried than Kyungsoo, “I’ll figure something out.”

Their morning routine is nothing short of bland. They used to stay in bed for hours before work, wrapped up in each other, and now they sit in a silent kitchen. Chanyeol hates when he starts thinking like this, stuck in the past like things can go back to how they were.

He leaves for work after giving Kyungsoo a kiss that tastes like nothing.

 


 

Chanyeol loves his job, no matter how lacking the inspiration has been lately. His occasional strokes of genius are what got him into this company, and Chanyeol is sure they’ll carry him through this current project as well. He just has to wait.

Junmyeon finds Chanyeol in his studio, announcing his presence with two quick knocks on the door. “Hey,” he smiles, “How’s the project coming?”

“It’s coming,” Chanyeol shrugs, “I have a beat set for the title. A four-on-the-floor type of thing.”

“I hope that’s not all you have in mind,” a worried look crosses Junmyeon’s face; as production manager, Chanyeol’s output affects Junmyeon’s work evaluations as well.

“I know the style I’m going for.” As Chanyeol usually sticks to producing similar genres, Junmyeon looks less than reassured. “It’ll sound great, don’t worry.”

The manager takes a deep breath. “I’ve never doubted you before. Chen’s in the studio this Friday, so at least have the title done by then, okay? Thanks, Chanyeol.”

It’s overwhelming, how everything feels like it’s riding on Chanyeol’s shoulders. He isn’t producing the entire album, just four songs, and even that feels like too much. At his best, Chanyeol can crank out four songs in two days. He just needs the right muse, and Chanyeol is starting to think the right muse doesn’t exist.

In the break room a few hours later (hours spent staring at the screen, matching drum loops to random synth progressions, and deleting it all), someone joins Chanyeol at his lonely table. “You okay?”

Chanyeol looks up, and Yixing is sitting across from him with an expectant look. “Yeah, man, I’m good. Didn’t know you were recording today.”

“Just a single,” Yixing tells him, “It would be better if I had one of your songs along with it,” he chuckles a bit.

Chanyeol hasn’t produced anything for Yixing in a while. The last track he’d done for Yixing had been good, really good. It sold well in both China and Korea; everyone had been talking about ‘Lay’s hot comeback’ after that. “Not with how I’ve been doing lately,” Chanyeol frowns, “I can’t even produce a chorus without scrapping it.”

“Uh-oh,” Yixing leans forward, lowers his voice— “Trouble in paradise?”

He really shouldn’t say—Yixing is just his co-worker, after all—but there are things Chanyeol needs to get off his chest. After a moment of hesitation, he nods.

“That’s too bad. But you two have been together for a long time, right? You can make it through anything at this point.”

Yixing makes it sound easy. When little problems have been piling up for over five years (has it really been that long?) Chanyeol isn’t sure how much longer he can stay with Kyungsoo. He changes the subject: “What about you? Has China’s most eligible bachelor found The One yet?”

Yixing laughs, “Let’s just say I’ve been doing some more… online searching, you know?”

Chanyeol blinks.

“The app?” Yixing’s voice grows soft again.

“What app?”

The man rolls his eyes, “The Artificial Love app? The one everyone’s talking about right now?”

Oh. Chanyeol has heard of that—it’s been publicized on the sidebar of nearly every website for weeks now, with flashy colors and cute-looking animated characters. But he’s never looked into what the app actually does. “That’s just a game, right? Don’t tell me world superstar Lay has a thing for video game characters. Wait until the fans hear.”

“Wow, you really don’t know about this, then,” Yixing fiddles around in his pocket and pulls out his phone. “It’s like real-life dating. You pick your ideal woman—or man, I guess—and then she becomes real. Well, kind of.” He opens the app on-screen, showing Chanyeol an adorable female avatar. But as far as he can tell, it’s still just a character. “That’s why it’s nice for me, because the fans would hate if I were really dating anyone, but I have my Artificial Love to keep me company. It’s pretty cheap, too.”

Sounds like a scam. Chanyeol tries not to buy into crazes, especially ones this over-advertised. But if it makes Yixing happy…

“So you use this app as a loophole?”

“Basically, yeah,” Yixing stands up, claps Chanyeol on the back. “I’m due back in the studio, but it was nice seeing you, man. Hope everything works out with the Mister.”

Chanyeol offers a weak smile, bids Yixing good-bye. I hope so, too.

 


 

“How was your day?” he asks Kyungsoo that evening.

Kyungsoo flips a page and without looking up from his book, says, “It was good.”

He never gives Chanyeol much to work with. “That’s good.” They sit in silence for a minute before Chanyeol continues, “Mine was alright. Still have lots of work to do for the Chen album.”

It’s easy to tell when Kyungsoo is paying zero attention to him: “Hm.”

So Chanyeol doesn’t say anything more.

There’s a beautiful tiredness kissing every part of Kyungsoo’s face, like he didn’t get enough sleep last night. He must not be used to sleeping on a bed, which Chanyeol finds a bit sad. He’s still beautiful, though; Chanyeol will always find Kyungsoo beautiful in that simple way of his.

“Did you do the dishes?” Kyungsoo's deep voice wakes Chanyeol up from his thoughts.

“It’s your day, isn’t it?”

The man sighs, “Tuesday, Chanyeol.”

“It’s not Wednesday?”

Finally, he puts the book down. “Chan, it’s Tuesday.”

Chanyeol gets up. “I’ll do that now, then. I’m sorry, baby, I thought it was Wednesday.”

As he stands in front of the sink, Kyungsoo calls out to him, “Did you forget about this Friday, too?”

This Friday. Chanyeol wracks his brain for what could possibly be happening this Friday, other than his session at work. Guilt sinking into his gut, Chanyeol braces himself and asks, “What’s this Friday?”

“Chanyeol, seriously?” There’s a slight strain to Kyungsoo’s voice, one that usually isn’t there. “We’re going out this Friday. It’s on the calendar.”

Oh. Yes, Chanyeol vaguely remembers discussing this with Kyungsoo, and how his boyfriend’s eyes had lit up as they made the plans. He feels like shit. “That’s this Friday? Baby, I’m so sorry—I might have to work overtime on Friday. Chen’s recording then, and if it takes more than a few tries—”

“Don’t ‘Baby’ me, Chanyeol. I already made reservations, okay?” Kyungsoo has every right to be upset. “I’m sick of you always putting work first. It’s important to you, I get that, but I’m your partner. We planned this date weeks ago.”

Slowly, Chanyeol sets down the dish he’s scrubbing and moves so he can see Kyungsoo’s face. “I know, and I’m sorry. Maybe recording won't take long. I can ask Junmyeon to re-book Chen, alright? We’ll go out on Friday, I’ll make sure.”

“Do whatever you have to do,” Kyungsoo snaps his book shut and walks into the bedroom, coming out a minute later with a bag slung over his shoulder. “I’m heading out.”

They both know what this means. Sometimes Kyungsoo just leaves for days at a time, and they both know he stays at his brother’s place even if the boy denies it when Chanyeol calls. Being away helps to cool his head, Kyungsoo once told him. So Chanyeol lets him go, even if everything is much more quiet and empty while he’s gone.

The next morning, Chanyeol wakes up and there's no Kyungsoo on the couch. He almost cries.

 


 

Again?” That’s the first thing he says, and Kyungsoo knew it would be because this happens every time. He drops himself off at his brother’s doorstep like it’s a safe haven, far away from romantic turmoil. The trip is never long, only twenty minutes by bus, but every painful minute seems to stretch out.

Kyungsoo doesn’t like his brother’s place very much. A simple two-bedroom apartment, perfect for Kyungjun and his wife, but Kyungsoo finds the atmosphere too… lived-in.

And yet, here Kyungsoo stands, a lost puppy with a suitcase at his brother’s door. “Just a few nights.”

“A few nights!” Kyungjun snaps, but he steps aside to let Kyungsoo through, “Imagine if I came to your place every time I fought with Yeonji? Oh wait, it would just be me and Chanyeol there, because you’re always here!”

Kyungsoo gets it. He hates intruding on his brother’s life—if anything, it’s embarrassing, running away to his little brother’s house when things go wrong. But about a year ago, the first time this happened, Kyungsoo felt an indescribable freedom in being away from Chanyeol. He felt less guarded, less responsible over someone else. And only once his worry and guilt ate away at every bit of his heart did Kyungsoo board the bus back to Chanyeol’s arms again.

It’s odd, how each time he leaves home, it takes Kyungsoo longer to want to return.

This is routine by now: Kyungsoo dragging his suitcase into the tiny spare room, then returning to Kyungjun with a box of snacks. These are all Kyungjun’s favorites; it’s like an offering, or a bribe to let Kyungsoo stay.

His brother sighs, accepts the box with a smile. “You’re a good person, Kyungsoo,” he says, “I don’t like seeing you lonely. Maybe try online dating? That’s how I met Yeonji—”

“For the last time, I’m not signing up for one of those sites. That kind of technology is too unreliable anyway,” Kyungsoo gives his least amused look, “Chanyeol and I didn’t break up. So I’d never cheat, and I know the same goes for him.”

Kyungjun drops it, but as Kyungsoo heads back to the spare room, the man asks, “Really? You leave him alone this much and Chanyeol would never cheat on you?”

“One hundred percent positive.” Kyungsoo’s answer is immediate. Loyalty is a trait that everyone likes about Chanyeol. But as soon as the words leave his mouth, Kyungsoo lets his mind fall into that dark place of worry and doubt.

 


 

Junmyeon has absolutely had enough of Chanyeol, which is understandable. They sit next to each other in front of the monitor and Chanyeol walks him through the title track’s progress.

“That’s it? Just synth and a sample beat?”

Chanyeol is happy he’s even this far along. “I’ll have it by the deadline.”

Junmyeon sighs. “Chanyeol, this is a love song. Sure, it’s upbeat, but there still has to be emotion, and I’m getting nothing from this.” Chanyeol stays quiet; he has a million excuses for why the track is lacking, but it all amounts to his own love life lying on its deathbed. “If you’re going through something right now, I understand, but you have to separate work from your home life, okay?” Junmyeon gets up and heads toward the door. “I’m calling in Sehun.”

Oh Sehun is the most promising paid intern at the label, floating around from project to project and offering input where it’s needed. Chanyeol is always thankful for a second opinion, but the bare-bones nature of what he has so far leaves Sehun stumped. “It sounds like you had trouble playing with the beat and stuff.”

“Honestly, I’m just not feeling this one,” Chanyeol admits.

A frown crosses Sehun’s mouth. “I looked at the lyrics. They’re kind of, you know, sexy. Is that why you’re having trouble—you can’t make it sound sexy?”

Maybe it’s because Chanyeol has been blue-balled for over three months. “I don’t know; I haven’t been this out of it before.”

Then Sehun perks up like a great idea has just struck him, “Hey, are you single? You could get inspired pretty easily if you had someone,” he nudges Chanyeol’s arm.

“That’s the issue—I have a partner, but things have been… rough, lately.” Just thinking about Kyungsoo makes Chanyeol’s heart sick.

“Then go to a strip club or something,” Sehun suggests.

Chanyeol cracks a smile. “Nothing romantic about a strip club. But I’ll think about it. Keep up the good work, Sehun.”

Instead of producing for the next few hours, Chanyeol surfs the Internet. Inspiration must be out there somewhere. Chanyeol’s Google searches lead him from exotic song playlists to borderline softcore porn, none of which offer any motivation.

The next link he clicks on is littered with pop-ups and gimmicky text. Chanyeol instinctively moves to close the window, but his eye catches on one of the sidebar ads: Artificial Love—Find your ideal type! Virtual love in the real world. Download the mobile app today!

Oddly, Chanyeol is tempted. He hasn’t heard from Kyungsoo in over twelve hours, leaving Chanyeol lonely and curious. It sounds like harmless fun, a little game for the romantically challenged. Chanyeol tells himself to stop thinking about it—he has work to do—but his mind keeps floating back to the app. A fake character wouldn’t make him sad or leave him, right? And Kyungsoo shouldn’t care because it’s just a game.

Instead of revisiting his work, Chanyeol swipes through reviews of the Artificial Love app. To his surprise, the response is overwhelmingly positive: “5/5—Just what I need!” says one, “My wife could never satisfy me like my Love can. A match made in heaven.” Another claims, “This app saved my life, period. Now when my mom bugs me about settling down, I tell her I have a perfect boyfriend.” “Puts regular dating to shame. Soon, everyone will want a Love instead of a real s/o. Romance is dead, Artificial Love is very alive.” “No awkwardness, no confusing emotions—just a flawless relationship.” The more Chanyeol reads, the more this sounds like a must-have.

After experimenting with distortion effects for a few more hours, the first thing Chanyeol does once he’s home is download the Artificial Love app. To him, it’s a no-brainer; Chanyeol needs comfort, and can delete the app if he really needs to. The purchase was a little pricey, but that’s what old gift cards are for. And once the app loads up, Chanyeol is brought into exactly what he expected: a bright menu, bubbly text, and cute noises whenever he taps something.

“Welcome to Artificial Love!” a tutorial starts up, “Here, you can have a hassle-free, fun relationship with your ideal man or woman—guaranteed! To start, let’s hear a little bit about yourself.” It’s just as kitschy as he imagined. Chanyeol fills in all his information on-screen, from his e-mail to his occupation. When he finishes, the tutorial resumes: “Perfect! Next item: Park Chanyeol, are you interested in a male or female Love?” Chanyeol makes his selection and then dozens of cartoon avatar men are popping up on the screen. “Now it’s time to meet your potential Love! Scroll through the profiles and select ‘Fall in Love’ when you’ve found your dream man. Note, this cannot be changed later, so choose wisely. Enjoy!”

Overwhelmed by information, Chanyeol taps on avatar profiles in random order. He wouldn’t ever consider himself attracted to a cartoon image, so instead Chanyeol goes by the attributes listed in each profile. Hobbies, personality, height… He has at least one trait in common with each avatar; the app did a decent job of personalizing results. As Chanyeol taps on more profiles, he sees there truly is a match for everyone. Bodybuilders, animal lovers, men who are good cooks. Musicians.

Chanyeol lingers on one profile in particular—he’s marketed as a ‘Musical Love’ who ‘Will place your heart over his passion for song!’ Probably exaggerated, but a concept Chanyeol can get behind. He reads on; the man is around the same height as Kyungsoo, just how he prefers. He has ‘a strong, yet mature personality.’

Baekhyun. It’s hard to put a name to the face when all Chanyeol has to look at is an over-stylized animated icon. From what he can tell, ‘Baekhyun’ has a soft appearance and chic style.

For a moment, Chanyeol considers flipping through more profiles, seeing if another avatar could be closer to his type. But that thought comes and goes; he’s already taking this too seriously as it is. On impulse, he taps the button— ‘Fall in Love,’ bolded toward the bottom of the screen.

“Great selection!” the screen reads, “Initializing. Your Love will be with you shortly.”

Chanyeol snorts as a loading bar begins to fill up. What could possibly be taking so long to load? He wishes he had Yixing’s number now—does everyone have to go through such a lengthy process?

Half an hour later, with Chanyeol’s phone nearly out of battery, the process finally finishes. Nothing could have prepared Chanyeol for what follows: he expects a game to start on-screen, but instead, a bright light leaps from where his phone camera is. The light spans from the floor to Chanyeol’s chin, glimmering like something big is about to happen. And Chanyeol just stands there, gripping his phone despite how hot it becomes, waiting for the light to disappear. He doesn’t notice it at first, but slowly, color fades into the brightness and a dense area begins to form—a luminous mass taking the undeniable shape of a man. Chanyeol watches with wide eyes as color fills in the space before him, etching clothing and warm skin until an entire person is standing in Chanyeol’s apartment.

“Hello, Park Chanyeol,” the man speaks in a smooth voice and a smirk rests on his pouty lips, “My name’s Baekhyun. Thank you for choosing me as your Love.”

This man has an otherworldly appearance to him; Chanyeol is taken aback by his presence alone. Silky silver hair, a boyish face, pigment around his eyes like he’s an idol. Baekhyun is too perfect to be real, and then Chanyeol remembers he isn’t real. There should be no consequences, then, if Chanyeol were to reach out and touch his face… sure enough, his hand passes right through the projection of Baekhyun. “Stop that, it feels weird,” Baekhyun swipes at Chanyeol’s hand, only to pass through it again. ‘Strong personality,’ indeed.

“What the hell…” Chanyeol walks around Baekhyun’s form; there are no strings, no gimmicks. And remarkably, when he looks at the man he can’t see through Baekhyun, just like a real person. “How are you here?”

“You chose me to be here,” Baekhyun answers simply, “I live inside your phone, in the app data, and can come out whenever you need me. It works with the projection technology of your smartphone.” Chanyeol doesn't use that feature often; his work doesn’t require projections. Sometimes he projects a film onto his wall, but Chanyeol had no idea his phone was capable of this. “Oh,” Chanyeol says, and then a million questions pop into his mind. “What do I have to do with you? Are you, like, a real guy?”

“No,” Baekhyun smiles again; his teeth are stunning, “We’re all randomly generated. But I have thoughts, and emotions, so in that way I’m real. Since this is Stage One, I’m just not an actual being. Well, I could be—” Baekhyun turns around and tugs the back of his collar down to reveal a glowing bar set into his skin, the number ‘0%’ beside it. “This is my Love Meter. The more affection you show me, the higher the number gets. And when you really have feelings for me, and the bar reaches ‘100%,’ then I’ll become a living, breathing person. That’s Stage Two.”

Chanyeol doubts that will ever happen; how could he love two people at once? This is just a distraction, just something to keep him occupied while he’s missing Kyungsoo.

This is weird. Chanyeol has an uneasy feeling about the entire situation, and he’s never shied away from technology before. Baekhyun just seems eerily real.

“Well where do I… keep you?” he asks, “You can stay on the couch if you want, at least until…”

Baekhyun looks at him long and hard, then with a knowing smirk, says, “You’re in a relationship.” It isn’t a question.

“I am. Yeah.”

Baekhyun moves to the nearest chair, and when he sits down, Chanyeol is surprised he doesn’t pass through it. “Then why am I here?”

Chanyeol sighs and takes a seat as well. “Because I want to feel like I’m in a relationship again. Right now it’s just…”

“Wow, the sex is that bad?” Baekhyun interrupts.

“It’s not that,” But when Chanyeol thinks about it, he hasn’t had sex with Kyungsoo in over a month. “We haven’t been on good terms these past few days and I hate being lonely.” When he admits that, a hollowness fills his stomach.

Baekhyun nods like he understands. “Sounds like a job for me. We’ll have lots of fun together, Park Chanyeol.”

The way he says it—Chanyeol has no idea what that means. “Well just, uh, let me know if you need anything, okay?” He gets up, fully prepared to get ready for bed and forget about Baekhyun until morning.

“Hold on, why did you even activate me if you don’t want to spend time together?” Baekhyun looks offended, but Chanyeol can’t tell if he really is, “If you want me to leave, there’s an ‘inactive mode’ in the app. But let’s hang out tonight.”

“Hang out?”

“Yeah,” Baekhyun shrugs, “You have a nice TV, and I want to get to know you.”

Chanyeol is a bit uncertain about the whole situation, but he can’t find it in him to turn Baekhyun down. “Alright,” he says, “let’s watch TV, then.”

Although he just met Baekhyun (does ‘met’ work for fake people, too?), hanging out with him is easy. They have similar taste in shows, and the conversation never stalls. Chanyeol can’t help but think, far back in his mind, that he made a good selection in Baekhyun.

At 1:30 A.M., when Chanyeol can’t keep the yawns inside his mouth anymore and Baekhyun is laughing because of it, he says, “This has been nice, but I really should get some sleep.”

“Suit yourself,” Baekhyun smiles at him, “but I’m gonna keep watching for a bit. Don’t shut your phone down completely or let it die, okay? That really messes with me.”

“Will do. Goodnight, Baekhyun.”

And as he glances back at the man’s form, sprawled out on the sofa, Chanyeol can’t help the warm feeling inside him. “Goodnight, Park Chanyeol. See you in the morning.”

 


 

When Chanyeol wakes up, there’s no sight of Baekhyun. For a moment, he thinks he dreamed everything that happened last night. It’s impossible, anyway, for someone to exist that’s chosen just for him. Baekhyun may have been a dream, but just to be safe, Chanyeol ventures into the kitchen to check for him there. No Baekhyun. He tries the bathroom next, and as Chanyeol cracks the door open—

“Boo!”

He’s never turned around so fast before, and the sharp spike in heart rate can’t be good for Chanyeol’s health. “Geez, you scared me!”

Meanwhile, Baekhyun is laughing so hard, Chanyeol is worried he’ll start crying. “You should’ve seen the way you jumped!” Baekhyun taunts him, but Chanyeol focuses instead on his white teeth. He has a perfect smile.

“Don’t do it again,” Chanyeol warns, but it’s playful.

He heads back into the kitchen with Baekhyun not far behind, but Chanyeol feels like something is missing, the same thing that was missing yesterday. It’s the smell of bitter coffee, he remembers—Kyungsoo always wakes up before him, and has the coffee machine running all morning. But Kyungsoo isn’t here.

“Are you a good cook?” Baekhyun distracts him from his own thoughts. Chanyeol opens the fridge to get some juice, and when he looks back, Baekhyun is sat at the counter like he’s watching a show.

Chanyeol shrugs, “I’m passable.” He used to be a better cook back in college, but since then Kyungsoo has taken over the cooking responsibility. Today, he pops some bread in the toaster. Easy. “Why, do you want something to eat?”

“I can’t eat yet, Chanyeol.” Baekhyun deadpans.

“Oh.” As he waits for his toast, Chanyeol goes to sit beside Baekhyun.

“I just want to know what I’m getting into.” Baekhyun has this attitude to him that Chanyeol finds oddly amusing. He hasn’t yet decided what he thinks about keeping Baekhyun around, but the man’s personality is interesting, to say the least.

He isn’t introverted, either—as Chanyeol eats his toast, Baekhyun seems fascinated with asking questions and making jokes. It’s the least quiet breakfast Chanyeol has had in a while.

He can’t feel the minutes passing, and when Chanyeol next checks his phone, he’s shocked at how late it is. Usually by this time, Chanyeol is already dressed and out the door. “Baekhyun, I have to get to work now,” Chanyeol says, rushing the final bites of toast.

“That’s fine,” Baekhyun looks indifferent, “I’ll be in your phone if you need me.” And within a second, Baekhyun has completely disappeared. Chanyeol blinks a few times as if that would do something, but there’s no evidence that Baekhyun was sitting next to him moments ago.

After taking a deep breath, Chanyeol resumes his morning routine.

 


 

The company building is especially hectic today, with everyone rushing to prepare for all the recording sessions at week’s end. When a particularly large artist is set to record, the studio atmosphere is far more tense. In this case, Chen’s arrival in two days definitely fits the bill.

Chanyeol slips headphones over his ears and loads up the bare-bones file for the title track, familiar patterns and audio waves filling the screen. It’s not as far along as Chanyeol would like. He should have multiple backtracks produced by now, but this time Chanyeol has fragments of a song here and there.

Before touching anything, Chanyeol listens to the song so far. And it’s fine. But ‘fine’ isn’t good enough for one of Korea’s best vocalists.

The transitions are what he has trouble with. Chanyeol could go with a completely generic transition bar, but where’s the fun in that? He needs something unexpected, something—

“You could syncopate it there.”

For the second time that day, Chanyeol’s life nearly flashes before his eyes. Baekhyun is right behind him, voice loud in his ear, but Chanyeol can’t feel his breath or anything human about Baekhyun. “You have to stop doing that!” Chanyeol spins his chair around to face the offender, “People don’t usually manifest out of thin air.”

“Let me have a little fun,” A smirk paints Baekhyun’s face, and he sits down (or appears to—Chanyeol doesn’t know if he actually can) in an empty chair. “But I’m serious, you should syncopate it.”

That’s right—one of the main factors in picking Baekhyun had been his musical quality. Ironically, he’d forgotten about that. Chanyeol unplugs his headphones and plays a section so Baekhyun can here. “You mean this part?”

“Yeah, that’s the pre-chorus, right? It would sound cool.”

Chanyeol sits, dumbly, for a full two minutes, running drum lines in his head. Maybe syncopation wouldn’t sound so bad, especially as a transition… “Baekhyun, I think you’re onto something.”

And in the next thirty minutes, Chanyeol has a song.

Some may consider Chanyeol a cop-out for taking Baekhyun’s advice, but what had Yixing called it? A loophole? That sounds much better, he thinks.

“And then when you have the vocals recorded, you could add like an echo effect,” Baekhyun chatters on, suggesting elements Chanyeol had never considered before. A few of his ideas are far off in left field, but others are exactly what Chanyeol has been looking for.

“I like that. And I won’t center-pan it, either—”

Three knocks hit the door, followed by Junmyeon’s voice: “Chanyeol, can I come in?”

“Don’t worry, he can’t see me,” Baekhyun says, “Not unless he touches your phone.”

Huh. All the intricacies of this Artificial Love thing keep getting more complex. “Sure, come right in.”

Junmyeon enters, and Chanyeol holds his breath even though Baekhyun should be invisible. “Were you talking to someone in here?” he asks, “Thought I heard your voice.”

Chanyeol shoots a glance at Baekhyun, who simply shrugs as if You’re on your own. “Just talking to myself,” Chanyeol says, “Helps the process.”

“I hope that means the title track is done,” Junmyeon pulls out a chair—the one Baekhyun is sitting on—and just as he sits down, Baekhyun vanishes with one last smile at Chanyeol.

“Uh, yeah, mostly,” He might never get used to the sight of Baekhyun disappearing, “I guess inspiration really struck me today.”

Although it isn’t entirely true, that seems to please Junmyeon, and as Chanyeol plays the song his manager brightens up. Even Chanyeol has to admit the song sounds good—by the final mix, it could be one of his best credits yet.

“You weren’t kidding,” Junmyeon grins, “What kind of muse appeared out of nowhere?”

You’d be surprised, Chanyeol thinks, but all he says is, “Today is just a better day.”

“Well, I’m glad things are working out,” Junmyeon pats him on the shoulder, and stands up to leave. Chanyeol knows what he’s referring to, but Kyungsoo has nothing to do with it. He often gets lonely at work, with long hours in a small, dark studio; Baekhyun’s presence has been a welcome addition to his day.

There he is now—immediately when Junmyeon stands, Baekhyun pops back into existence, relaxed in the chair. “Keep up the good work. I’ll check on your progress tomorrow,” Junmyeon wears this hopeful expression, one that Chanyeol rarely sees anymore.

“That wasn’t your boyfriend, right?” Baekhyun brings Chanyeol out of his thoughts.

“He’s my manager,” Chanyeol answers, “but that would be very scandalous.”

Baekhyun hums in agreement, and then perks up to tell Chanyeol, “Oh, right! Look at this!”

He turns his body so Chanyeol can see the back of his head, then pulls down his shirt collar to reveal the glowing number bar he’d shown the day before. But this time, the bar is more vibrant and full, the number indicating 18%. “You must really like me,” Baekhyun’s eyes light up, “Or, at least eighteen percent of you.”

“Don’t get ahead of yourself,” Chanyeol says, but a cloudiness fills his mind. After years and years of concentrating on only one person, is it even possible for him to think about anyone else? As soon as the thought comes, it passes for Chanyeol to focus once again on the music in front of him. “How does this sound?” He asks after fiddling some more with the ending.

And when Baekhyun nods, happy with his contribution, Chanyeol feels something like motivation for the first time in too long.

 


 

Something has to give. Kyungsoo is too tired to do this every day for the rest of his life. He loves being a teacher, loves his kids, but there’s already a stigma against him in the faculty. Parents don’t want gay men teaching their children. It’s a sad, pathetic reality Kyungsoo has settled on over the years.

But then again, gay or not, is he even in a relationship anymore? He hasn’t seen Chanyeol for a few days now, and recently they haven’t been intimate anyway. Teaching has made Kyungsoo realize how much he wants kids of his own someday, but Chanyeol seems almost against the idea. He never makes time for their romance; how could he make time to raise a family?

Some of the female teachers try to flirt with him. One even asked him out for coffee. But Kyungsoo always responds with a polite, firm “My other half wouldn’t like that.” He’s tempted to start wearing his ring again so the comments will stop, but he knows it’s safer this way. Without the ring, Kyungsoo attracts less attention about his relationship, which means a more stable job.

He misses Chanyeol. Kyungsoo constantly wants to break the key out of his bag and go rushing back to Chanyeol’s arms, but he needs this time. Living together all the time isn’t good for either of them, even if Chanyeol can’t see that.

His brother asks him, every time he crashes at his place for days at a time, why he’s still with Chanyeol after years of monotony. The answer is simple: he loves Chanyeol. And if Kyungsoo isn’t there to take care of that man, who will?

After the kids are let out, a teacher pops into Kyungsoo’s room, one of the older teachers who thinks all the young staff is less qualified. “Do Kyungsoo,” she speaks slowly, almost patronizingly, “Emergency staff meeting scheduled this Friday at five to discuss new technology integration. I expect to see you there.”

This Friday. Kyungsoo can’t possibly think of anything he has going on this Friday evening; if he has something, it slips his mind. He smiles, “Of course.”